Then I woke up this morning and saw that Bruno Sammartino had passed away at the age of 82. As you might expect, this changed my plans in a hurry as….well it’s Sammartino. If there has ever been a wrestler who deserves every positive treatment he can get, it’s this man. He went beyond the idea of a legend and is in the realm of icons of wrestling (if not pop culture). There are very few people who have ever approached his level and even fewer who are in the same conversation that he’s in. I wasn’t around for Sammartino’s career, but it’s certainly worth discussing to the fullest degree that I can provide.
A few months ago, I was asked who I thought of when I thought of a professional wrestler. My answer was Hulk Hogan and I’m sure a lot of people my age would say either him, Steve Austin, the Rock, or maybe one or two other names. Those are the top names of my generation and a group of people who personify professional wrestling in the 1980s and 1990s.
Now how many people do you think would say the exact same thing about Sammartino? The man was the World Heavyweight Champion for over eleven combined years with one reign lasting the majority of eight years. Think about that for a second. What has happened in wrestling (or anything for that matter) in the last seven and a half years? In wrestling, the Pipe Bomb hadn’t happened yet, the Miz hadn’t become WWE Champion and the Shield was about two years away from debuting. Now imagine one person holding a title that entire time.
If that’s not enough for you, Sammartino wound up winning the title again and holding it for about three and a half more years. The longest World Title reign since Hulk Hogan’s epic first reign is about a year and three months. In other words, that’s about a third as long as Sammartino’s SHORT reign. That’s the kind of number that not only is never going to be surpassed again but is never going to be approached.
As I’m writing this, Brock Lesnar has held the Universal Title for about twelve and a half months, causing several fans to BEG for him to lose the thing already. Now imagine if he held it for another year. Not only would fans be near the point of rioting (well, as close to rioting as they’re going to get these days), but it would seem almost unthinkable. Again: Lesnar would be just over halfway to Sammartino’s shorter mark as champion. I really can’t fathom that and it makes my head spin every time I try to actually comprehend those numbers.
In addition to the title reigns though, there was the fact that Sammartino was just so revered. How often do you remember seeing him in any kind of attire other than his wrestling gear or a suit? He came off like a champion no matter what he did and that made a difference. Sure it was a different era and such a thing didn’t exist today, but now it would be a Sammartino t-shirt or any other way that could possibly be used to make more money off of his name and likeness. Just let him look like a champion instead of someone else who happens to be one of the top stars in the promotion.
That presence and look that Sammartino had ties into the whole idea of respecting him. I’m sure there are cases here and there, but how often do you hear someone saying bad things about Sammartino? When I was hearing people talking about his passing today, it was in revered terms. Even people who clearly aren’t wrestling fans today sounded like they loved the man just from seeing him as a child. Wrestlers can come off as heroes to people (especially children) and that seems to be the case to a higher degree with Sammartino.
That hero status was never more apparent, at least from a wrestling standpoint, than the night that he lost the title for the first time to Ivan Koloff in Madison Square Garden. I’ve seen the match and I’ve seen the reaction from the people when he finally lost. I can’t quite put the words together to say how stunned the were about the loss. You could feel the spirit go out of the crowd and there was no way to respond. The ring announcer didn’t announce Koloff as the new champion as Sammartino had to stand up in the ring to draw the fans’ attention.
Back in 2014, I was in the Mercedes-Benz SuperDome when the Undertaker’s Wrestlemania winning streak was broken. The fans were silent and not sure what to think. It was one of those things that you knew might happen one day but you never could imagine it actually happening. However, that was the case that night. It was the night where everything changed because something that had never happened before finally happened. The energy came out of the stadium and no one knew what to do next.
As incredible of a moment as that was, I really don’t think there’s a comparison between the two. The fans are a different breed today and the Wrestlemania fans in particular are smarter than the average group of people. Even though they were stunned, it was something that you could see someday. Undertaker hadn’t lost in all those years, but it’s not like something you would ever expect to see. The thing is though, there was always the possibility that it could happen.
That wasn’t the case with Sammartino. The man was a hero to the fans and to those people, this was real life. Sammartino was their champion and there was no way he could actually lose the title. After all those years as champion, Koloff probably looked like any other challenger. Sammartino was finally defeated though and I don’t think any of the fans would ever look at wrestling the same. It was genuinely the end of an era, even if Sammartino wound up winning the title back a few years later. Things weren’t the same again and that’s the kind of change that has never been done since.
There will never be another Sammartino. Not only have times changed too much but there will never be someone with the same skills. To be able to hold the title that long and be the top guy for so long is just not going to happen. How many wrestlers are even top guys for eleven years, let alone being good enough to be the World Champion for that long? It just doesn’t happen anymore.
I wasn’t around for any of Sammartino’s career (His final match was August 27, 1987 in a tag match against One Man Gang and King Kong Bundy. His partner: Hulk Hogan, in the only time they ever teamed together.) but he’s one of the names that was already revered when I started watching. To many he was a hero but to everyone he’s a legend. Sammartino will never be duplicated and I’d be scared to see anyone even try. So long strongman.
Thomas Hall has been a wrestling fan for over thirty years and has seen over 50,000 wrestling matches. He has also been a wrestling reviewer since 2009 with over 5,000 full shows covered. You can find his work at kbwrestlingreviews.com, or check out his Amazon author page with 26 wrestling books. His latest book is the WWE Grab Bag.
Get the latest and greatest in professional wrestling news by signing up for our daily email newsletter. Just look below for “GET EXCLUSIVE UPDATES” to sign up. We are proud to offer our popular Wrestling Rumors app and encourage you to download it for an optimized user experience. It is available for Android and also on iOS. Thank you for reading!